Funk Master George Clinton On the Ultimate Drugs

George Clinton doesn’t merely play funk — he lives it.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer earned his rightful seat in the pantheon of funk deities alongside James Brown and Sly Stone with a five-decade career as the mastermind behind Parliament-Funkadelic. Widely sampled and critically revered, Clinton’s rise from Motown staff songwriter to leading figure was not without its fair share of indulgences.

While Clinton’s substances of choice for many years rivaled Hunter S. Thompson’s in variety, the 76-year-old has found cannabis is what he  now turns to, for inspiration and as medicine.

“I’m getting an education on this shit,” Clinton says from his home in Tallahassee, Fla. “We still don’t know everything marijuana can do, but I have no doubt that they wouldn’t have kept it away from us this long if it wasn’t important.”

Clinton, a keynote speaker at the 2017 New West Summit in Oakland from Oct. 15 to 17, says that far from being surprised that cannabis is now being legalized in states across the U.S., he thought it should’ve happened long ago.

“Shit, I thought we had it licked in ’69 and ’70,” he says. “I guess I just took it for granted that it would be legal a long time ago. I didn’t think it would take this long.”

While Clinton doesn’t dabble with much of the new technology the current cannabis boom has ushered in — “I’m old-school,” he says — he subscribes to the concept of marijuana as medicine, especially given the frightening realities surrounding current legal prescription medications.

“We’ve got to fight legal drugs now,” he says. “Man, we’ve been waiting so long that legal drugs are now the ones that are fucked up. Prescription drugs are being sold on the street and the black market. I mean, damn! People are having a lot of problems getting off of the shit that they’ll sell you now.”

“When I grew up, we had to deal with Bayer aspirin, Tylenol, and Bufferin on TV,” he adds. “Now we’ve got to see ads for medicine that will bring demons to you, kill you — all the warnings they put on that stuff will scare the hell out of you unless you’re looking for something to get fucked up on, like they do on the street.”

Parliament and Funkadelic are bands that consist of the same group of musicians, but which played slightly different types of music (and which were signed to different record labels). And the origins of Parliament go back to 1950s doo-wop. But for someone whose first album with Parliament, Osmium, was released in 1970, Clinton is remarkably in tune with the music of today. He’s worked with rapper Kendrick Lamar, producer and musician Flying Lotus, and bassist Thundercat.

Clinton says he doesn’t have to seek out these artists, because the power of funk brings them to him.

“They’re pretty much P-Funk bands. They’re the grandchildren of Funkadelic,” he says. “[Childish] Gambino and them — when they did their album — they came out and said they sampled ‘Maggot Brain.’ With Kendrick Lamar, he came to Tallahassee to explain what they were up to. With Flying Lotus, I knew as soon as I heard the record. It was like, ‘All right, you know what the fuck you’re talking about.’ Ice Cube? Same thing. He got a band that sounds like we sounded in 1980. I stay in touch with all the people that stay in touch with the funk.”

Pushing the connection further, Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label will put out Clinton’s new album with Parliament, a record focused on the fight for affordable medicine that’s titled Medicaid Fraud Dog.

It’s an issue Clinton takes very seriously.

“The album is basically about how we need to get free medicine,” he explains. “They need to make that mandatory. They’re using health now the same way they do your protection in the streets with police and the army. They sell it to you. They sell you your health. Medicine should be free.”

One thing that no one needs to worry about is the energy at a George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic live show.

Following the 2014 release of Clinton’s memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You, the artist says he’s seen a renewed interest in his concerts. While in town for New West Summit, Clinton and his musical family will perform two shows at San Francisco’s Independent, and fans should be ready to dance.

“Music is the ultimate drug,” he says. “We still know how to get people up, get them turnt so they get to that place that we like to have them. The point is to get them crunk, turnt, fucked up, and partying. If you get them to that state of mind, then you’ve succeeded.”

Having recently weathered Hurricane Irma at his Florida home, Clinton acknowledges that natural and political forces have combined to make 2017 one heavy year. Fortunately, he knows just what the doctor would order when things are looking bleak.

“Now is when the funk is most needed. You can tell when people stop smiling, when they won’t make eye contact or go all quiet,” he says. “When you feel that tension, you need funk! There ain’t no other language. You’ve got to be the loudest person in the world. Get a groove, because we’re going to party, and the tension will be broken.”


New West Summit
Thursday, Oct. 13 through Sunday, Oct. 15 at Marriott City Center, Oakland.
$499; newwestsummit.com.